Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports



After the final game of the 2010 regular season, a reporter asked then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith if there was any chance he'd return the following year. The question to the soon-to-be free agent seemed absurd. After all, Smith had just endured one of the more tumultuous, embarrassing stints with an organization in recent memory, and it seemed like a divorce was the best thing for both parties. Smith hadn't performed well, but it was doubtful anyone could have succeeded considering the circumstances. Smith was forced to play in (multiple) systems that didn't fit his skill set, and when the square peg didn't fit in the round hole, his coaches routinely threw him under the bus. Not ideal.

Then a funny thing happened. San Francisco went out and actually hired a head coach who wasn't only capable, but also a big fan of Smith. Jim Harbaugh made it known from the get-go that he liked Smith as a player, and wanted him back in the fold. Somehow, he convinced the once maligned signal caller to give it another shot with the 49ers, and the rest is history. Smith went from a punch line to becoming a very respectable starter in the league, posting a 19-5-1 record in his 26 starts under Harbaugh. He also led the team to a 36-32 divisional round win in the playoffs, capped off by a game winning drive that would have made even Joe Montana proud. The only thing that derailed Smith was an injury in 2012, which opened the door for a talent that had too much upside to be denied. Smith was benched (and later traded) and Colin Kaepernick was given the keys to the car.

Fast forward to the present day, and we may be in a situation where history is about to repeat itself. This time it's Kaepernick who's maligned and looking like a punch line, but it's possible that's all about to change. Let's get caught up to speed.

After Kaepernick replaced Smith in 2012, he took the league by storm and fell just short of bringing San Francisco it's sixth Lombardi trophy. He did some pretty amazing things that year, like going into New England and blowing the doors off the Patriots, gaining 444 total yards and scoring four touchdowns in the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, and bringing his team all the way back from 14-0 down to win the NFC Championship.

Kaepernick was inconsistent the following season, but seemed like he'd eventually turned a corner. In games 2-10, Kaepernick would only complete 53.7 percent of his passes and average a league low 154 yards passing a game. He threw seven of his eight interceptions on the season during this span and only hit on eight touchdown passes. Most importantly, the 49ers record in those nine games was 5-4. Games 11-16 would show signs that Kaepernick had made adjustments, as his completion percentage jumped to 61.8 percent and his yards per game to 232. He threw 10 touchdown passes and only one interception as the 49ers finished the season on a 6-0 run.

He was solid in the playoffs as well, until everything came unraveled in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game, when three late turnovers by Kaepernick put the team in a hole they couldn't overcome.

After the late surge in 2013, many expected Kaepernick to follow that up with a breakout, MVP type campaign. Unfortunately, the season was largely a disaster. Outside distractions from the Harbaugh/Jed York fiasco no doubt played a part, but Kaepernick largely regressed as a passer. He seemed to struggle to see the field and often broke the pocket too early. In turn, his team couldn't score points as he led the starting offense to only 29 touchdowns all year.

The offensive line was partially to blame, as poor pass protection was often the norm and Kaepernick seemed skittish because of it. The 49ers allowed a sack percentage of 9.6, which was the third worse in the NFL. That number shouldn't be overly shocking though, as it was near the bottom of the league in every season under Harbaugh. They were sixth worst in 2011 (8.9 percent), third worst in 2012 (8.6 percent) and fourth worst in 2013 (8.6 percent).

After a Harbaugh exit, the 49ers could have gone ahead with the hiring of a true offensive mind in Adam Gase, but instead opted to stay in house with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. In turn, the 2015 season was a complete disaster across the board (If you're wondering, their sack percentage was 9.2 under Tomsula, worst in the NFL).

Kaepernick's career had already started it's free fall prior to Tomsula's promotion to head coach. From Week 13 of 2014 through his final game before being benched this past season, Kaepernick had gone 3-10 as a starter and was held to 174 yards passing or less in nine of those 13 games. He looked lost, indecisive and you could make the argument that he might have been the worst starting quarterback in the NFL.

After ditching Tomsula, San Francisco did what it should've done a year earlier and hired an offensive minded head coach in Chip Kelly. Say what you will about his one-year stint as a personnel man in Philadelphia, but Kelly still proved he can coach in the NFL. He lead the Eagles to back-to-back 10 win seasons in 2013-2014, and took below average quarterbacks and made them look like viable starters. For example, with Kelly, Nick Foles completed 62 percent of his passes with 46 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He also averaged 241 yards passing a game. Without Kelly, Foles' completion percentage dropped to 56 percent, and he struggled with seven touchdowns and 10 picks. His yards per game also dropped to 187.

But even the arrival of Kelly didn't do much to quell to storm of dysfunction, as Kaepernick still demanded a trade this offseason, apparently feeling like too many bridges had been burned with the franchise. While it looked like a divorce was close, nothing ever came to fruition and Kaepernick remains a 49er. The question is now, can he find redemption the same way Smith did?

While he hasn't seen much of the field yet because of his rehab from injury, Kaepernick still seems to be making an impression on his new coaching staff. Per Bob Hotlzman of ESPN:

Colin Kaepernick asked to be traded, but still has made quite a first impression on his new 49ers coaches. "Works his butt off in rehab, great with the coaches, learning the offense quickly, I like him a lot" is what one coach told me. It would not surprise me if Kaepernick is the 49ers starter week 1.

While Holtzman's report allows for some optimism, Kaepernick himself still needs to make strides for a renaissance to happen. For one, he has to show that he's as committed to the film room as he is to the weight room. Also, it's been reported that he withdraws himself from teammates, which is something he will need to improve upon. Communication is key for any quarterback, and Kaepernick can't expect to operate in a vacuum and be successful. Smith, for example, was very well liked by his teammates, and even organized workouts during the lockout in 2011, despite not being officially with the team.

Kaepernick should consider himself lucky in that he now plays in a very quarterback friendly system, and just has to buy into Kelly, his teammates and where the organization is headed. Kaepernick has more talent than Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford or any other quarterback Kelly has had, and will have every opportunity to regain he 2012-2013 form.

Only time will tell if redemption is in the cards for Kaepernick, and if he can overtake Blaine Gabbert to reclaim the starting job. The other alternative is the bench, and mostly likely a fade into obscurity. If anything, it'll at least be interesting to see it all unfold.

Al Sacco has covered the 49ers for various sites over the years. He's been a guest on multiple podcasts and had his work used by ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY. Follow Al on Twitter @AlSacco49